Friday, December 21, 2018

Middling 2.3: You're Not as Irreligious as You Think You Are

Maybe I’m just tired, but I’m reading especially slowly lately. It’s taking me forever, for example, to slog through The Habit of Being, a collection of letters written by Flannery O’Connor to friends, fans, and people in publishing. In fairness, the book is loooong and DENSE. She was a novelist of great acclaim in the mid-twentieth century; I’ve read some of her stuff and a biography of her interwoven with other great American Catholic writers of the time, and for whatever reason I feel some affinity with her. She has a southern wryness (“I distrust pious phrases, particularly when they issue from my mouth”) and a stark eye for the intersection of God and human life. In some of her correspondence she shares about being called a “hillbilly nihilist,” but she prefers to think of herself as a “hillbilly Thomist,” a reference to the great theologian of the Middle Ages. Her correspondence is well worth reading, but it’s a big ole slog, I don’t mind telling you.

So I’m trying to tuck in other books here and there. One is by a (relative) contemporary of hers: Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman. His task was to consider how the gospel speaks into the lives of those with their “backs against the wall,” and in fact how the gospel might be judged according to what “good news” it offers such people. As such, it’s a kind of proto-text for liberation theologies of the later twentieth century. It’s a quick read, mercifully, and his basic argument is compelling. But I found his good news a little remedial—the gospel for Thurman is not so much liberating as it is undergirding for those who are systematically marginalized and oppressed. Nevertheless, Jesus and the Disinherited was formative for Martin Luther King and is maybe best thought of as the grandfather of liberation as a theological thought. We might not be wrestling today with what the gospel demands for oppressed people if Thurman hadn’t written this first. So I’m very glad he wrote it, and very glad I read it.

Just a quick note on some work-related stuff. First, a shout out to Greg Paul, founding pastor of Sanctuary in Toronto. I haven’t met Greg face-to-face yet, but over the course of a couple of years I’ve come to admire him. Sanctuary is stubbornly multicultural, and not in a superficial, look-how-we’ll-we-get-along way. The regular encounter of rich and poor, ethnic majority and ethnic minority, powerful and marginalized has enriched the community’s understanding of the gospel and led to a hard-fought mutuality that has proven good for the city of Toronto. What Greg has learned there is on display in his book Resurrecting Religion, a wonderfully written, powerful argument that you’re not as irreligious as you think you are, and that religion is better than you think it is.

I’ll be honest: The premise for this book seemed a little tired when I first heard it, but a good writer with real struggle credentials can revive a tired topic if it’s true enough, and that’s what Greg has done here. Try it, you’ll love it. You’ll also love Brian Walsh’s review of it, which may introduce you to Brian Walsh as well, if you’ve never had the pleasure.

Finally, for seventeen years I worked in relatively close proximity to the great James W. Sire, who died a few days ago as I write this. Jim is known in the main for two things: his book on Christian worldview, The Universe Next Door, and his editorial stewardship of the late Francis Schaeffer, one of the stewards of intellectual evangelicalism before anti-intellectualism became a thing. Jim was also the editorial director of InterVarsity Press for many years before I came, and a regular lecturer at many InterVarsity campus chapter events throughout the country. Jim was an entirely unique character, with a wit and a charm that we often forget tends to characterize the best thinkers. He was wry and punchy, sharp and savvy, high-minded and down-to-earthy. It was Jim who told me that a PhD is a hoop you jump through so you can say, “I jumped through that hoop.”

I have two favorite Jim Sire stories, one I know second-hand and one I lived through myself:

1. Jim and his nearly perfect wife Marj were hosting and driving around some visitor of the fundamentalist variety. Such encounters are inevitable when you ply your trade in evangelical circles, but extending hospitality and service to such hard noses demonstrates an extra measure of grace. Anyway, they’re driving around, and Jim was indulging his guest in some high-minded theological conversation. Marj interjected with her own insight, one that happened to contradict one of Jim’s assertions. The guest spoke up: “I don’t think it’s right for a wife to speak in opposition to her husband like that. The Bible tells us that wives should submit to their husbands.” Jim turned to Marj and said, Marj, I order you to disagree with me!”

2. Jim was walking another guest through the halls of InterVarsity Press when I bumped into them. He introduced me and said some very nice things about me—Jim was very generous—and ended the introduction with, “Basically, he’s the low man on the totem pole.” Jim was very candid, and very accurate.

I have missed Jim and his nearly perfect wife, Marj, since each of them retired and I saw them less, since I moved to Colorado and haven’t seen them since. I’m sad to think that Jim is no longer out there, mixing it up and holding out hope for an intellectually robust evangelicalism. He was emblematic of a great generation of faithful, thoughtful Christians, and he has now left that work to us.

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This is an excerpt from the Spring 2018 issue of my occasional e-newsletter, Middling. It focuses on books, music, and life in middle age. Let me know if you'd like to be on the distribution list.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Why #WisdomRemixed

You may have noticed me posting a lot recently on social media about a collection of shirts and hoodies called #WisdomRemixed. That's a little thing my friend and I started as an opportunity to do something creative together. What follows is the rationale behind it. I hope you like it!

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"What you have learned,
you must unlearn."
- Yoda, #WisdomRemixed

Something magical happens every now and then. Some artful, imaginative, deep soul will string a few words together, all the necessary elements of insight align, and a little bit of timeless, transcendent wisdom emerges. And the world is better for it.

But before too long, nuggets of wisdom get passed around so much that they become stale. A cliché is, essentially, timeless truth corroded by time. We start to lose sight of the essential insight of our insights. And so even when found in possession of wisdom, we are gradually, insidiously becoming less wise.

TWEET THIS: A cliché is, essentially, timeless truth corroded by time. #wisdomremixed

#Wisdomremixed is an attempt to stop the steady slide into cliche that so many great insights fall victim to. These graphic reinterpretations of classic quotes, shuffled and flipped in fresh ways, remind us of the brilliance behind them and invite us to reconsider how they might change our way of seeing ourselves, each other, and the world we live in. We unlearn, we relearn, and we reclaim the wisdom of those who came before us.

TWEET THIS: We unlearn, we relearn, and we reclaim the wisdom of those who came before us.

Wear #wisdomremixed with pride! Post photos of you out and about in these shirts and hoodies! Send us your own remixed wisdom! As the great Ferris Bueller once (sort of) said:

“If you don’t stop
and look around
once in a while,
life moves pretty fast.”
#WisdomRemixed

Check out the catalog of offerings at https://wisdom-remixed.myshopify.com/. More items to come!

Friday, December 07, 2018

Middling 2.2: Whenever Possible, I Go Vinyl

Have you heard about the woman whose full name includes the command prefixes of two AI devices on the market? Alexa Seary says her life has become “a waking nightmare” since Apple and later Amazon introduced their virtual assistants.

At least now, I suppose, her friends are ordering her around using her first name instead of her last name. Ha ha very funny. We opened our home to artificial intelligence this year when Kara’s sister gave us two Amazon Echo Dots. So far we use them mostly for weather reports, sci-fi humor (“Tea. Earl grey. Hot.” Ha ha very funny), and music.

Here’s the problem: Your virtual assistant is more loyal to her corporate creator than to you. So Alexa will not link to our iTunes account; she will only access our Amazon account. That means I can listen to all the music I’ve bought Kara’s mom through Amazon, but none of the music I've bought for myself through iTunes. (Not to mention none of the music Kara's mom has bought for me. And she and I . . . well, we have different musical tastes.)

That’s okay, because I am still, by and large, stubborn about owning music in physical form. Whenever possible, I go vinyl. So for Christmas I also got two brand new records: If All I Was Was Black by the great Mavis Staples, and Fifteen by the Wailin’ Jennys.

Let me quickly say that even a “bad” Mavis Staples album still prominently features Mavis Staples: earnest, soulful, wise, fully committed. I read an interview with her years ago where she revealed that Bob Dylan had wanted to marry her. She told him he needed to get right with God first. I like that and I like Mavis. In recent years she’s collaborated with Chicago legend and Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy, which in theory should work: Both are great artists who don’t do anything halfway. But I found this album a little too quaint.

I wonder if Tweedy is star struck: I know that I get a little deferential when I’m editing a legend. I wonder if Mavis exists in his imagination more as an icon than a person. I wonder if she’s just getting tired after nearly seventy years of singing and nearly eighty years of fighting the good fight. Or maybe they’ve gone as far as they can go together. Whatever the case may be, in the end it’s still an American treasure singing, so maybe it will grow on me. Tracks of note include “Little Bit” and “Try Harder.” But also check out her collaborations with Arcade Fire: “I Give You Power” and the Talking Heads track “Slippery People.” Powerful and prophetic—classic Mavis.

The Wailin’ Jennys is, I suppose, technically a “super group.” Three women, each doing just fine as a solo act, decided to get together. Their voices are heavenly together. They broke up a while ago but reunited for their fifteenth anniversary, with a new album of favorite covers and a tour to support it. They actually came to Colorado Springs while I was out of town. Sigh.

Fifteen came out the year Tom Petty died, so a cover of his “Wildflowers” was perhaps inevitable. But it’s amazing. I could listen to it over and over and over. Also of note is the cover of “The Valley” by K. D. Lang, a song I’d heard but never really noticed, a sad and knowing piece with a hopeful chorus. That and “Keep Me in Your Heart,” which Warren Zevon wrote from his death bed, are now shortlisted for my own funeral playlist.

I also, kind of as a joke, got the new Taylor Swift CD, Reputation, for Christmas. It’s pretty good, although whoever started the “Old Taylor is dead” thing (spoiler alert: it was Taylor herself) needs to take a second pass. 1989 was her Great Leap Forward; this is just her natural next step.

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This post is excerpted from the Spring 2018 issue of Middling, an occasional e-newsletter I send out, focused on music, books, and life in middle age. Let me know if you'd like to get it.

Postscript: The Mavis Staples album has indeed grown on me. You should get it.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Middling 2.1: Beyond the Glitter to the Light

Some jokes are wasted on the young. Case in point: “Electric Boogaloo,” the subtitle to the sequel of the movie Breakin’, which I first saw at a theater in Neillsville, Wisconsin, with my cousins when we were young. That’s how I remember it, at least. Breakin’ was a theatrical attempt to capitalize on white suburban fascination with hip hop dance. It certainly worked on us.

At the end of the credits for that first film we were told to keep an eye out for the second, but by the time Electric Boogaloo hit the theaters I had moved on to other interests—hair metal, maybe. (The time bleeds together.) I still to this day have never seen the sequel, but I love the cadence of the title, and I find myself throwing back to it every time I reference the second in a sequence of something. Millennials rarely get the joke.

Such is the travail of the middle-aged life. I am reminded almost daily of the ephemerality of our preoccupations. The things that fascinate us, the things that shock us, the things that seem so earth-shatteringly important will one day seem cute and immaterial, the way old people seem to young people. One day I myself will be that old and cute and immaterial artifact. It’s only a matter of time.

I’m writing this the day after the birthday of the late great Thomas Merton, a mid-twentieth century monk whose writings have been significant for me. He died fifty years ago this year; he was five years older than I will be this year when he died. Among his later writings is the fantastic book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which covers a lot of ground but ends with a refreshingly nondualistic reflection on the ephemera of every age:

There is the hope, there is the world
that remakes itself at God's command
without consulting us. . . .
The glitter is false?
Well, the light is true.
The glitter has ceased to matter.
It is even beautiful.

It occurs to me that the middling age is the opportunity to look beyond the glitter to the light. At first that can feel like a great giving up, even like a rapid succession of great givings up, with no assurance on the far end that we’ll have anything left. But from the angle Merton describes, this looking beyond is a gift, a truer seeing of everything.

Kara and I rewatched Breakin’ a year or so ago. It was huge for her, apparently, when she was a kid. It was cheesy, but fun. You should check it out.

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This is an excerpt from an occasional e-newsletter I send out, focused on books, music, and life in middle age. This excerpt is from the spring 2018 issue. Let me know if you'd like to be on the distribution list.